It’s a Good Thing: Pioneering British Columbia Naval Architecture Company Launches Greener Tugs


Credit: Robert Allen Ltd.

Robert Allan Ltd. ElectrRA 2100 Battery Electric Tug

Battery-electric and LNG/diesel-powered vessels from Robert Allan Ltd. are a welcome addition to shipping, which generates an increasing share of greenhouse gas emissions

As the Canadian economy came back to life in 2021, attention turned to what was happening off our coasts. After all, approximately 25% of Canadian exports and imports, by value, are transported by some type of marine vessel; worldwide, maritime transport accounts for 90% of world trade.

While container ships idling in Vancouver’s English Bay are an encouraging sign of economic activity, they’re also a visual reminder of the toll port traffic is taking. Maritime transport is responsible for 2 to 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a figure that could reach 17% by 2050 if nothing is done, according to a study by Dalhousie University.

Often lost in the discussion of the environmental impact of cruise lines or container ships is the workhorse of the port: the mighty tug. While most port pollution is caused by larger diesel-powered vessels, the cumulative impact of tugs (some 1,200 are licensed to operate in British Columbia) is undeniable. A local naval architecture firm, Robert Allan Ltd. (RAL) of Vancouver, had a singular impact on the shape of these boats and pushed to make them more ecological.

Last May, HaiSea Marine Limited Partnership, a joint venture between Haisla Nation and Vancouver Seaspan Shipyard, announced plans to introduce three battery-powered tugs and two low-emission (LNG/diesel) tugs off Kitimat. . The RAL-designed boats (expected to arrive in 2023) will provide vessel-handling and towing services for LNG Canada’s new export facility and will produce virtually zero emissions when running on battery power.

RAL traces its origins back to 1930, when a young Scottish immigrant began designing vessels for the fishing industry and coastal ferries in British Columbia. Over time, the company would hone its expertise in tugboats, continuing through successive generations of Allans. (Rob Allan, the founder’s grandson, is its current executive chairman.)

According to President and CEO Mike Fitzpatrick, RAL is responsible for around 100 tugs that are built each year, with one-third built in Turkish shipyards, one-third in Asia and the rest scattered around the world. Six of the 14 tugs that freed the wrecked container ship never given of the Suez Canal in March were designed by RAL. In a typical year, Fitzpatrick notes, 80% of RAL’s revenue comes from outside of Canada.

“We have local competition in some countries,” he says. “But internationally, with a major oil or mining company, we’re probably the only name on their shorthand dial for tug designers.”

RAL’s first foray into green tugs came in 2003, when Foss Maritime, a Seattle-based tug service, commissioned the company to design the world’s first hybrid tug. This vessel, which runs on four diesel engines and 126 batteries, began serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in January 2009; according to a 2010 study from the University of California, Riverside, it reduced soot emissions by about 73%, nitrogen oxides by 51%, and carbon dioxide by 27%.

A fully battery-powered tug will of course have an even greater impact on global waters. And Fitzpatrick sees growing interest around the world in RAL’s greener tugs. “Certainly in North America, Europe, Australia, there’s a desire to provide some type of emission reduction – or to have tugs that can adapt to low-emission fuel or propulsion,” he says, projecting that “some type of battery/electric power” will eventually comprise 40-50% of RAL designs.

The challenge, Fitzpatrick says, is finding customers willing to pay the green premium. In Kitimat, LNG Canada was eager to obtain social permission to complete its project. So it made sense to have a greener fleet. But globally, it’s still a hurdle for cost-conscious buyers (many of them hang on to 40- or 50-year-old tugs). “When unsupported by regulation or customer will, any desire to buy green often falls by the wayside.”

The cost of shipping has skyrocketed

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